The dragon's sinister teeth gleam white. Its tongue, forked and red, juts out from a blue and green mouth. Its wings span nine feet. This fearsome papier-mâché and plastic creature, forever suspended in mid-flight, looms from the ceiling over Amy Hysick's high school science classroom.
Dragons are the thing in the 2017 New York State Teacher of the Year's class at Cicero-North Syracuse High School in Onondaga County. Dozens of them, including plush stuffed animals, plastic inflatables and even a very-much-alive bearded dragon, call every nook and cranny in the classroom home.
The classroom is located in the basement of the school's technology wing, next to a shop class. Sometimes her students hear the grind of drills and saws.
"My students began calling the room 'the dungeon,' so I thought, 'Why not make it a castle?' " she says.
The classroom is guarded by stonework and a knight in shining armor, protecting all, of course, from dragons. "Kids learn better when they are comfortable in their surroundings," she says.
Yet, beyond the castle theme, Hysick is all about biology. Her dress is patterned in double helix. Her earrings match, although she also likes to wear a pair that is the chemical structure for caffeine. Her wardrobe is full of such biology-based outfits — which help make her lessons come alive.
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee calls Hysick "an inspiring educator, who uses innovative, multi-modal teaching to reach her students. She is also a strong advocate for students and for her community."
Hysick is theatrical. Her lectures on complex topics weave stories, analogies, call and response and mnemonic devices together. She divides her 80-minute block classes into several components, which include the interactive lecture, quiz and hands-on learning. "Incorporating auditory, visual and kinesthetic activities for my students allows their brains to touch the material and rehearse the material in more than one way," she says.
And so, after her lesson on mitosis (cell division) for the Regents-level living environment class, Hysick announces that the hands-on lab is going to be "glucose-based." She then unveils trays containing sandwich cookies, sprinkles and toothpicks and promises the students she has some "Tasty, tasty science!"
The students get to work, creating the stages of mitosis, making mitosis cookies, which they can "Dispose of any way you like after photographing them for me," she says. Hysick walks among the students checking their work and offering encouragement. Students pop the tops off cookies, draw on the cream-filled center with toothpicks and judiciously add sprinkles to form the stages of mitosis.
Hysick gives her students short quizzes nearly every day. Using ZipGrade, a grading app, on her smartphone, she gets instant feedback to see what her students know. She can and does alter her teaching approach based on quiz results. "That's what assessments are supposed to be for," she says.
"We take part in an opt-out movement annually," says North Syracuse Education Association President John Kuryla (rhymes with "gorilla," he offers). "And we feel very firmly that some of the legislation around testing has been detrimental to students. Amy stands behind that.
"She's been able to be present at rallies and speak to local media as a parent and as a teacher," says Kuryla, who adds that Hysick meets with legislators to discuss the detrimental impact funding cuts have on schools.
"Assessment is one of the most valuable tools teachers have. But in my opinion, the current grades 3–8 tests do not represent the true value or purpose of assessment," Hysick says as she moves between small bins, doling out baking soda, vinegar and old-fashioned film canisters for her next class.
"Assessment should be frequent, appropriate for the grade level being taught, shouldn't be a 'surprise,' but be aligned to the learning standards. The results should be used to adjust classroom instruction according to students' needs." Hysick adjusts her instruction constantly in immediate response to her students' needs.
Nowhere is that more evident than in her science explorations class, a class she co-teaches with special education teacher Jeff Colasanti. "She puts so much effort into planning, so once she is in front of the kids she is not searching for words, or materials," he says.
After Hysick's lecture on volcanoes and the different types of volcanic eruptions, the science exploration students pick up the bins Hysick prepped earlier and go outside to study how built-up pressure can change a volcanic eruption. They pour vinegar into the bottom of the film canister and measure a teaspoon of baking soda into the circular depression in the canister's top. It takes both dexterity and agility for the students to flip the top and seal — the quicker, the better — to see maximum pressure build. Hysick looks like she is having as much fun as they are, especially when the built-up pressure pops the tops off some of the canisters.
"When I walk into Amy's classroom, I see kids excited to be here," says Bill LaClair, executive principal of Cicero- North Syracuse High School. "They are engaged in learning."
LaClair cites Hysick's ability to use different strategies to meet students where they are. "That's due to her commitment to this work."
That commitment to differentiated learning and to engaging all students "makes her one of the finest examples of what public education provides for student learning," says NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino.
Hysick, ever the noble teacher, understands that even the strongest castle can have weak spots. She believes in rebuilding, or what she calls recovery from failure and setbacks, and offers her students opportunities to retake quizzes and tests. "You have as many chances as you need," she tells them, "to show me that you learned what you need to learn."